by Allison Mayes
During my time at Roosevelt as a Sustainability Studies major I have had the opportunity to work with many great professors and learn alongside very dedicated classmates. It has always been exciting for me to learn about what each individuals passion is when it comes to sustainability because it is an incredibly expansive topic that will require people who are passionate about various aspects to address global environmental issues. I have met students and professors passionate about water, waste, urban gardening, green design, conservation, commercial agriculture, and green tourism … and keep in mind these are only a few examples of the many passions I have encountered.
Well, mine has always been wildlife conservation, even long before joining the Sustainability Studies program, so that explains why there have been so many blogs related to protecting or engaging with wildlife this semester. To help the readers better understand, when I was a child I went to the zoo and always put a dollar in the plastic bin in the ape or large cat house believing I was making a really, really big difference. One year I even went as far as to ask my parents to give all the money I got for my tenth birthday to the Panda in the magazine, which I would later on learn was the World Wildlife Fund. As an adult, I try to stay away from buying brands I know use unsustainable palm oil from Indonesia because I want to be part of the movement to save the orangutans. Also, I am very active when it comes to bringing awareness about the dangers threatening honeybees and am saving up to one day have my own organic bee farm. So one can imagine the sinking feeling in my heart when I woke up and read that the Black Rhino had officially been declared extinct in the wild.
While this should have been no shock for the Rhinocerotidae family, as the Vietnamese Rhino Javan Rhino was just declared extinct in 2011 and the Northern White Rhino will most likely reach the same fate in the next few years, it still bothered me that even after the heightened awareness and conservation efforts towards the Black Rhino it still hit the point of extinction. I immediately thought, “Hey it’s okay, there are still some in captivity, they can get them back in the wild.” But the more I pondered the idea the less hopeful I became and I now see this will most likely never happen and I will explain with a heavy heart as to why.
One of the main things I came out learning from my Biodiversity (SUST 330) class is that as a species humans are not good with sharing their space. This is the truth no matter where you are in the world, so I am by no means picking out one particular region doing this to one particular creature. It is just worth noting that Black Rhinos saw a major change in their habitat within the last few decades due to humans turning the natural grassland into large spaces for agriculture and clearing the land for various reasons, depriving it of it’s natural tropical habitat. Before their extinction, this change alone was enough to disrupt the Black Rhino population. It lead to isolation of herds, which harmed the mating system and genetics of the Black Rhino, and threatened what humans had created.
People who live in areas where rhinos are present typically do experience the destruction of crops since rhinos do not understand that they are causing damage to valued property. There are even incidents that involve human causalities. Because the human population is growing and we are slowly running out of space, more crops need to be grown, which means more people are stretching into territory already well known to larger creatures. This means that they are more likely to get hurt or see damaged property. This is why I fear we will never again see the Black Rhino in the wild. People won’t just wake up feeling generous one day, if anything they are in need of more land, and will continue to use the space for their purposes. Also, if there is nowhere for the Black Rhino to go where they can live in their natural habitat it is better to keep them an animal of captivity. To put them back in the wild when we know the conditions they would have to face due to their size it would be cruel.
However, despite these concerning issues with humans and sharing space with larger creatures, what has always disturbed me about the decrease in rhino populations is the price people are willing to pay for a rhinos horn. Due to various myths and a stubbornness to consider evidence provided by Western medicine, the value of the Black Rhino horn is extremely high. In ancient Asian medicine the rhino horn is believed to cure many ailments, and even to this day countries like Malaysia, South Korea, India and China still cling to this belief. There has never been any scientific proof to back up the claim that a rhino horn can cure a disease nor is there any documented cases of a rhino horn curing anyone, yet it continues to still be a highly valued myth.
The elites of society are especially responsible as they are lucky enough to be educated and have access to more advanced medical technology, yet want to show off their wealth by buying rhino horn when they should be taking Advil instead. Also, in the Middle East, the rhino horn is believed to be sacred when making battle daggers. Even though the price has gone up dramatically, it is still not a shock when a wealthy father presents a rhino horn dagger to his son when becoming a teenager. It is meant to be a symbol of strength and manhood. Such myths, plus the enjoyment of pouching by people from the States and U.K, ultimately caused the wild Black Rhinos to go extinct and threatens the other families of Rhinocerotidae. Another reason it would be pointless to put them back into the wild.
I don’t want to give up on the idea that humans and large animals can learn to live together in harmony, but I do have my moments where I feel let down. After the extinction of the Vietnamese Rhino Javan Rhino, I thought there would be significant change. Because of their high value in myths I believed more people would jump in and attempt to conserve the species. It just seemed to me like simple logic that even if your purpose is to kill an animal you have to make sure they are breeding at a faster rate than you are killing them, but for the rhinos their value appears to be going up as they continue to dwindle.
Luckily, I can step back and think of the animals that have recently been taken off the endangered species list due to the work of passionate individuals, laws, and proper wildlife conservation education. Also, while it is not the same, it is at least relieving to know that Black Rhinos are in zoos and so it is not completely impossible to try and integrate them into the wild. It would be quite the challenge and it would involve high levels of protection, strict laws, and to some extent changing cultural mentality. While I am normally one to preserve culture, we can see in the case of the Black Rhino what happens when myths or traditions involving animals are not adjusted to keep up with modern times.
Despite the struggles ahead, I come from a field of study where everyone has their days where they feel down — but we move on and ensure that there are also days of victory! If there is anything I have learned from my peers it’s that we cannot give up on the fight to sustain the future no matter what aspect of sustainability we are passionate about. So if you can’t tell already, my passion is wildlife and I refuse to believe that we cannot learn to live along side the larger animals of the planet. Reality shall persevere over myth.
Thanks for reading folks.
Allison Mayes is serving an internship in the Sustainability Studies Program this Fall 2013 semester as a contributor and assistant editor of this blog as well as the Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future (SSF) website project. A senior SUST major, Allison was a lead author of the Water section of the SSF project in 2011 and was part of the inaugural section of SUST 350 Service & Sustainability class that worked at the Chicago Lights Urban Farm in Cabrini-Green during the winter/spring of 2012.